An art collective that dedicates itself to polemics and interactions in the Eurasian landscape “between the east of the Berlin Wall and the west of the Great Wall of China,” Slavs and Tatars believes in the power of humor and adopts George Orwell’s saying “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Started as a reading group, the collective publishes books, prepares exhibitions and displays presentations and performances on this landscape for the last decade. Visiting Istanbul after Warsaw and Tehran, the exhibition “Mouth to Mouth” comprises works in these three forms is open at Salt Galata. Offering an extensive selection of the collective’s portfolio, the exhibition reactivates our cultural memory.

While the U.S. and the Middle East invade the global agenda, Eurasia is forgotten by many politicians and academics. Conducting research on this region which is squeezed between ideologies and empires, Slavs and Tatars was founded by Payam Sharifi and Kasia Korczak in 2006. Recently based in Berlin, the collective collaborates with researches, academics and craftspeople from all across the world. Turkic languages, semantic shifts in cultural interpretations, and the modern understanding of mysticism are only a few of their topics of research.

A core member, Payam Sharifi talks about the structure of the collective: “It’s not just because who we are but the idea is that we are multiple people ourselves. The only way to combat against the identity politics that we have today is to accumulate so many identities. When you negotiate between your Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian and Persian identities in your own way, which all have the historical and conflictual relationships, you can recover identity politics.” This semi- mysterious stance of Slavs and Tatars may make you think that they’re anonymous, that is not the exact case. They don’t hide their identities; they just want people to focus on what they do, not who they individually are. “We do everything under the name Slavs and Tatars. We don’t exist individually. I don’t have an artistic career except Slavs and Tatars,” says Payam.

I’m curious about Slavs and Tatars’ primary motivation and why they devote themselves to Eurasia. “We wanted to address to this area of the world which is kind of falling through the cracks of history,” begins Payam Sharifi and continues: “But also it was a way of questioning the educational models that we inherited. If you are studying in Ankara, Tehran, Jakarta, Moscow, Harvard, Oxford etc. you have the same educational approach. I find it a bit unfortunate because each culture should have a different approach to knowledge. It shouldn’t be the same genealogies. The purpose of the reading group is that we were trying to learn things and unlearn what we have learned for many years but also learn things that we are not being taught in the universities, institutions, museums of the West.” In short, they’re in search for alternative historical narratives, and new ways of seeing, perceiving and learning. In a sense, like archaeologists, they make discoveries by separating modernism layer by layer. Installed at the head of the stairs at Salt Galata, “Kitap Kebab” is an iconic work that can be regarded as the collective’s signature work. Portraying a number of books on a skewer, the work signifies the effort to build a diagonal balance between vertical and horizontal ways of learning.

A Monobrow Manifesto, 2010
Slavs and Tatars, Mouth to Mouth, SALT Galata, 2017
Courtesy the artists and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York Photo: Mustafa Hazneci

“The only way to combat against the identity politics that we have today is to accumulate so many identities.”

Qit Qat Qa, 2013
Slavs and Tatars, Mouth to Mouth, SALT Galata, 2017
Courtesy the artists and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York Photo: Mustafa Hazneci

Another striking manifesto by the collective is that they devote themselves to the region “between the east of the Berlin Wall and the west of the Great Wall of China.” In fact, this duality can be seen in almost all of their works. “We bring together things which are usually considered antithetical: Berlin Wall and Great Wall of China, Communism and Political Islam. The idea is that we are choosing not to choose between them.” Spread across Salt Galata’s floors, “Triangulation” series is an obvious example to that. Resembling road signs, these installations point to one sacred (Mecca) and one secular city (Moscow) from different corners of the world, and refers to the ongoing conflict between these two poles.

Talking about modernism, I ask them why they define themselves as “anti-modernist.” They say it doesn’t mean that they’re completely against modernity. They use this term, coined by French philosopher Antoine Compagnon, in a way that means “going forward but with an eye in the rearview mirror.” “The idea is that modernity, science and technology won’t solve all of the problems. History is important, tradition is important, religion is important. That doesn’t mean you have to be religious but the study of religion is super important for cultural production. You cannot study art and not understand religion. It doesn’t make sense. You should be like Hodja Nasreddin; he’s facing the back; looking at the past, but moving to the future.” A work in progress since 2014, “Lektor” installation shows how much the collective pays attaches importance to the past and the wisdom that comes from it. Based on Kutadgu Bilig, a work by Yusuf Has Hacib, a Turkish poet and scholar in the 11th century, the installation features quotes in Uigur, its original language, German, Arabic, Polish, Spanish and Turkish.

Slavs and Tatars, Mouth to Mouth, SALT Galata, 2017 Photo: Mustafa Hazneci

Those who are familiar with Slavs and Tatars know how central the concept of language is to their works. I ask them about their methods in researching Eurasia where hundreds of languages are spoken. “We do research in original languages, not only in English, because otherwise again we would have only one type of view of the world. So, we do research in Russian, French, Persian, Polish etc.” Since it’s impossible for all members of the collective to know all languages, they sometimes encounter misunderstandings and lost-in-translations. “A lot of our work is trying to further cultivate these mistakes and misunderstandings. That’s why we use the term ‘transliteration’ instead of translation,” he says. There’s a humorous aspect to transliteration. They particularly enjoy puns, and this kind of black humor brings character to their works. I’m curious about what they think about puns as a group of people what speak many languages: “It’s by chance! You have to ask very stupid questions to very smart subjects just like Hodja Nasreddin. A lot of art is trying to prove that it’s smart. The artist tries to show how smart he/she is. But we think when you are mature and wise, then you can actually be very stupid. Because you don’t have to show that you are smart. It’s more interesting to trick people that you are stupid. And puns are very stupid, they are ‘lame’. But behind puns there is much more happening. There’s always more layers behind them.” Comprising a series of carpets and exhibited at the lowermost floor, “Love Letters” examines the contradictive relationship between language, nationalism and religion through puns. Shaped by retouches on caricatures by futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovski, the works features alphabets used by the Soviet Union and Anatolian groups who speak Turkic languages.

“There are two kinds of humor. One is at the expense of somebody else. You make fun of somebody else and it’s not fun. That’s not nice because it’s mean. The challenge is making fun of yourself.” It’s obvious that Slavs and Tatars doesn’t take itself too seriously. Bringing together sacred with cheap in a funny but unaggressive way, the collective purposely abstains from adopting a didactic and informative approach. “I think this is what’s wrong with the societies, this attitude of ‘I’ll tell you what you should know’. We dedicate ourselves to what we don’t know, not to what we know, that’s how we learn. Everything we do is about helping ourselves and others to become better people.”